Picture a boy and he's running.
Behind him, lost in their own dust, the herd.
It's a dark, ragged blanket unrolling across the plains.
There was a time a train would have taken three or five days to move through this many bodies.
That time has come again.
Along with another.
It's been more than a century since the last of the piskuns, but still, this is a word the boy knows. Not because he's Blackfeet and it's a Blackfeet word, and not because this is Blackfeet country. It's not. It never was.
They ran animals off cliffs out here, too, though.
He hadn't even thought of piskuns for a long time, until the truck stop yesterday. The clerk was wearing a t-shirt with three buffalo in a line on it, all moving to the left. But the fourth—the first, really—was tipping off the edge it had never seen coming. The tipping buffalo couldn't call back about it, warn the rest of the herd not to follow. So they were just going to keep piling on, piling in, falling down and down.
The clerk saw the boy looking at his chest and smiled, his teeth all broken, and then the boy's big sister pulled his hand, put him back in the van. They were going to another powwow, maybe in South Dakota, he couldn't remember anymore.
In the back of the van, he kept those falling buffalo secret.
Where he knew the word from was a little kids' book he'd once found on a wrong shelf at the library, when he was hiding. It was for the kindergartners, or even younger. It had had a boy on the front, though, so he'd sneaked down an aisle with it to see if that boy was him.
The story in pictures was of a boy in a buffalo calf robe, running ahead of thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds of meat.
He was tricking them. [End Page 50]
For weeks he'd been practicing. At the cliff he was running for, a braided rope lay in the grass, tied to a rock deep in the ground. What he'd learned to do was scoop up that rope without looking down, swing out over the edge of the cliff, and crash back into the egg-shaped hollow the men had carved out for him, just under the lip of rock.
From there he could watch the stampede spill past, down.
This is the way it's always been.
One runner, a thousand meals.
When there had been a herd, anyway.
But then at the powwow, people had heard radio and tv news reports, and everybody kept walking out to the east side of the grounds, where all the cars were. They would just walk out there and look. As if they were waiting.
The boy sat on top of an uncle's camper and watched, too, but could never see anything. Not even any lights anymore. No planes, no more cars with one headlight sneaking in late.
When his mom couldn't find him later, she started running around crying and pulling her hair, remembering her other two sons, but then somebody pointed to the boy, and he came down.
The next report said something about the army, and then the reports stopped.
Nobody knew what was happening. Not really.
Two days later when the concession stands ran out of food and propane, the t-shirt sellers all stopped watching their stands as well. All the kids crawled through them, trying on hats and jerseys, playing with the kites that tore like tissue paper and the footballs that would get scratched up just from skidding in the gravel.
In the middle of one of those games, while the older boys were trying to knock an eagles kite out of the sky with a normal brown football, somebody in the east parking lot screamed once. But it was long, and it was enough. Everybody felt it more than they heard it, and felt it...